Wednesday, May 30, 2007

136 Points of Reference by Jonathan Ellery

I remember seeing Lee Friedlander at a lecture showing his work that was eventually published in his book Nudes. During the Q and A, someone asked him “What are your influences?” He paused and then said, “Well…yesterday I had a great bowl of bean soup.”

This, of course, wasn’t an answer we were expecting. This was a room of photographers. We wanted a “photography” answer. We wanted a tidbit of wisdom from a great artist.

Bean soup. He said bean soup, and that made more sense to me than if he rattled off a list of names known or unknown. After all, what were we going to think about if he had answered, “Oh…let’s see, Atget, Brassai, blah blah blah.”? Of course, influence comes from many directions and often from unexpected places.

The book 136 Points of Reference by the graphic designer Jonathan Ellery and his design studio Browns, examines influence through 136 objects from various collections.

These “points of reference” range from books, to a license plate and from manhole covers, to a photo of Bruce Gilden (not a photo by Bruce Gilden but a photo of Bruce Gilden). This book shows that Ellery has great design taste and finds fine examples in the most unexpected places. By featuring them inside a book and outside of the real world, he holds these objects up for close inspection and reveals both their beauty and hidden poetry.

This book works like opening a time capsule and examining the contents. Through these objects we may find a sense of who the collector was, and what material was an important part of their life.

A few sections of the book are given over to other artists who name a few of their own reference points. Martin Parr includes John Hinde Studios postcards, Evidence by Mike Mandell and Larry Sultan, the work of Tony-Ray Jones, and ephemera from a miner’s strike that includes a decorative plate. The great designer Alan Fletcher shares 5 of his own creations and constructions along with their back stories.

As you know, I love books that reproduce objects and this book satisfies in that sense. But the one draw back is, from knowing and seeing the collections of several designers in my life, they all seem to include the same kind of stuff. A drink coaster, an oddly beautiful luggage tag, postcards, books, street signage, advertisements, business cards, etc. A friend of mine compulsively photographs the designs on the labels of 45 rpm records, collects beer labels, and has an apartment full of examples of product packaging. All of those things have informed and educated him as a designer. Even Andy Warhol’s time capsules contained similar material and their references can be seen in his work.

If you think about the fact that the entire world is full of this ephemera and different human sensibilities, there could be several billion books of this sort created for every person on the planet. Maybe they wouldn’t be a nicely designed and presented as this book, but I know I’d like to take a long look at them.

As much as I enjoy this book, it is no revelation towards anything but a designer’s look at design. What we may need to do is ban designers from creating anymore of these books and only allow non-designers to do this sort of compiling.

I will bring up Martin Parr’s name one more time to mention one aspect of his collecting that intrigues me. Alongside his collections of what you might expect, postcards, Saddam Hussein watches, and the like, he diverges from “design coolness” and embraces poor examples in equal measure. His collections of Spice Girl ephemera and tacky wallpaper actually contribute to a more complete portrait of Parr, the world and what he draws from as reference than most designers might risk revealing.

By the way, someone should ask Jonathan Ellery what his 92nd Point of Reference is. His book jumps from 91 to 93. Perhaps a missing page could also be a considered a Point of Reference.

Or was it going to be a Spice Girl crisps wrapper?

This title is very expensive through Amazon so I am not providing a link.

Book Available Here (Evidence)

Book Available Here (Boring Postcards)

Book Available Here (Boring Postcards USA)

Book Available Here (Bliss)

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Kratochvil, Pellegrin, Uimonen and the new photojournalism

In contemporary photojournalism there are a few practitioners who are testing the boundaries of the forms that traditional journalistic images have adopted. These are photographers who now embrace blur, rough impressionistic description and what I have referred to before as visual gymnastics into their images. This is perhaps an attempt to slap the viewer into paying attention. The combination of these characteristics has created what amounts to be what I see as a new formalism among some contemporary photojournalism.

When Gilles Peress traveled to Iran in 1980 to see the reality of the Islamic revolution first hand, he brought back a new form of personal journalism. His choice of the implied road trip narrative to covering current news events paved the way for younger journalists seek out new ways of describing the events they were covering. It has created a form of impressionistic photo story where facts are described in ways that favor the general mood and emotion of the situation. It is essentially a subjective journalism infused with the personal reactions of the photographer.

What creates this sense of personal reaction is obviously directly linked to how photographers adopt and hone their individual instincts in making pictures. While honing these instincts the photographer (all photographers) often learn by example. For instance, in photojournalism, the adoption of the 28mm wide angle lens and the in-close, low to the ground vantage point was an attempt to bring the viewer into the realm of the action (and vicarious danger) and thus became a standard descriptive tool. Many photographers used this new language, applying it to their subjects in an attempt to fit in with the newly perceived dynamism that was being seen in the work of others.

It is one thing to adopt and force a form onto your subject and yet another to react using your instincts to find the form of the picture. This is what Garry Winogrand was so adamant in attempting to maintain in his own work. “If I see a photograph that I know, I do my best to change it somehow.”

Now I do see the vast difference of not only the intent but situation in which a journalist works and how Winogrand worked. There was little chance that Winogrand might be harmed within the arena that he was engaging the world. A journalist has it much different as death is, at times, a constant possibility. For these photographers to work in that mode of stress is fascinating enough. But if one is able to set that aside for one moment, what I am calling into question is the transition from instinctive response to a subject, to the moments when force of habit takes over.

While looking through the De-Mo book WAR from the photo agency VII, I found an interesting moment in a photographer’s work where it seems that force of habit has overwhelmed other instincts. I am speaking of the work of Antonin Kratochvil and his work in this book in particular.

Of the 29 images that make up his contribution to this book, 25 of which are remarkably similar in the approach to their construction. From the tilt of the camera to the arrangement of the subject matter, they all follow a very similar form. It is as if Antonin is following a formula into which he is crow-barring his subject. Take the following examples from WAR.

This seems to be a trend in his work that has established itself over the past decade or so. If one looks through Vanishing, his last book effort, they will see much of the same force of habit on display.

This is not to say that the work fails on all fronts as sometimes the world cooperates with this formal application but if you look over the course of much of the recent work it is undeniably seen. One has to go back as far as Broken Dream to see the photographer free from the handcuffs of his own constraint. In that title Kratochvil is at the top of his game in that he hasn’t thrown out all convention but is pushing at its edges with good result.

As a book, Vanishing is an interesting exercise in design and tone. This is something that a few De-Mo designed titles have done to good effect. I think Vanishing feels great as an object and pushes against conventions as you orient the book in your hands differently. It is a horizontal book that is bound at the top edge, which forces a somewhat uncomfortable way of reading. I like that, in essence, it makes you pay attention in a different manner than you might otherwise.

Broken Dream follows the conventional route although like the best of books, it is the photographs that make that title worth while. Made over twenty years, the work in Broken Dream examines the communist countries of Eastern Europe. In Kratochvil’s own words, “All I wanted to do was record how all those poor people adapted to lies and suffering, how they got used to it, how in fact they were bound to miss it when it was over.”

Paolo Pellegrin is another photographer working in what I perceive as the new journalistic vein. His book Kosovo 1999-2000: The Flight of Reason uses some of the same language that I’ve been speaking about. Like Kratochvil, Pellegrin often pushes his subjects to the edges of the frame while imposing his order. Although unlike Kratochvil, he doesn’t seem to be locked into his own rules of design but experiments freely with a combination of examples set and his own instincts. On a superficial level this provides at least a variance of imagery so the story doesn’t seem to follow a pre-prescribed formalism.

Flight of Reason is mostly about the displacement of people caused by the conflict in Kosovo. Paolo plays both sides of the conflict showing in equal measure Serbs and Kosovar Albanians. As it was with the war in the Balkans over a decade ago the lines are blurred as to telling one side from the other and in this book one feels that same sense of the unknown.

The book is interesting in its design in its pages are entirely black so all of the imagery has an added ominous tone. The only thing I don’t like is that the paper stock is a touch too glossy. I would have liked to see how a matte paper would have treated the content. Most all of the images run across the gutter and are shifted to one side or the other but luckily the book opens relatively flat so there is minimal disruption to the photos. Be careful though as the binding does not seem to be the strongest and after a while the signatures shake loose from their glue.

Ilkka Uimonen is another of the Magnum set that is utilizing impressionistic imagery to present his stories. Uimonen is slightly different as his images often seem to be descriptions of a point of panic among the subjects. The blur and on-the-run feel of his images is their strength as it puts us momentarily in the midst of the perceived chaos.

Cycles is a book about the Israeli / Palestinian conflict. It documents suffering on both peoples and instead of taking sides seems to be more concerned with the obvious reoccurrance of history and human behavior. The book is mostly black and white but does include a few images in color. This is a bit confusing as it reminded me at least of his other responsibility which is fulfilling magazine assignments. In terms of the work as a whole it seems less realized because of this mix.

The book is appropriately simple in its design with bright white covers that get smudged and dirty in just a few readings. There might be a metaphor there somewhere. The book opens right into the photos until it ends with a small quote from Jung, a caption list and acknowledgements page. The book was designed by Ilkka and holds onto a handmade maquette feel to the whole production down to the strip of binders tape on the spine.

Book Available Here (War VII)

Book Available Here (Vanishing)

Book Available Here (Broken Dream)

Book Available Here (Torst)

Book Available Here (Flight of Reason)

Book Available Here (Cycles)

Friday, May 25, 2007

Many Are Called 1966 vs. Many Are Called 2004

Every once in a while I will be comparing an original edition of a title to a reissue and see how they exist in both forms. One of the benefits of the popularity of photo book collecting is that many publishers are reissuing titles that have been long out of print. In the past few years we have seen Walker Evans, William Eggleston, Garry Winogrand, Bruce Davidson, Susan Meiselas, Joel Sternfeld and Lewis Baltz titles dusted off and put back on the press.

Some of these have been facsimile editions meaning that they hold true to the original edit, sequence, design and feel of the original except perhaps deviating by taking advantage of improved printing technologies. I enjoy this approach to reissuing. Other reissues change the edit, often by adding images, or adding text in an attempt to “improve” to work. There is an argument to be made in favor of that. For me though, it is informative to see how the artist responded to the work in book form at the time of making the original edition.

What if Evans’ American Photographs was reissued with 30 more images? Would that improve the work? Why do we feel it necessary to improve a work anyway? The obvious answer is that, as artists, we probably are more sensitive to the flaws in a work that we feel are obvious to others but I think something is to be said for accepting those flaws and letting them exist. Our response to old work many years after it is created is always more informed, so where does the cycle end?

The title in this post is Walker Evans' Many Are Called originally released in 1966 by Houghton Mifflin Company and The Riverside Press. The reissue was produced in 2004 by Yale University Press and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The edit and sequencing of the photographs is the same as the original. It is in the trim size and printing where the major changes have been made. The original (judging from the soft cover copy of the 1st edition) is approximately 7 X 8.5 inches in size. The new edition is 8 X 9.5 inches so it has a noticeable difference in size. This new edition also adds a couple essays and other information regarding the plates that create a sense of a “book that is studying a book” instead of just presenting the work. As a scholarly title it is interesting. Luc Sante contributes what I think is a really great, often poetic essay on reading the work and book. Jeff Rosenheim, the curator of photographs at the Met adds to the back-story regarding Evans’ process of creating the photos and the publishing of the book as well.

As a title that exists as the work intended, I think this reissue slights that by self consciously emphasizing the importance of the work with the inclusion of the two essays. James Agee’s introduction to the original provided all that may be necessary in regards to text. The two added texts either just reiterate Agee’s sentiment or dwell on the “study” of the work. They are interesting but re-contextualize the book from the original.

The biggest mistake with the new edition is the alteration of the cover art. The original is wonderfully simple with its biblical reference. The type is strong and demands reverence. The overlay of the “Lex. Ave. Local” is a nice subtle aberration to the static, heavy feel of the title. I think, from a design standpoint, it was a remarkable accomplishment.

The new edition features and image (Pal Tells How Gungirl Killed) with the title sandwiched between the two figures in the photo. Although the font is the same it is smaller and squeezed into the layout. I sense that Yale and the Met figured that if they went with the original black cover that the book wouldn’t sell as well. Maybe they are right. I think they are wrong. I believe that most people who would buy this title are already very familiar with the original or familiar in general with Walker’s work that that would be the selling point.

That aside, the printing of the new edition is vastly improved from the original edition. The photographs have gradations and subtleties that were literally eaten by the original. The new printing also achieves a richness in the prints that the original lacked. The black tonalities in the original were always a bit anemic looking.

It is a really wonderful book that I am happy was chosen to live another few years.

One small potential benefit of the reissue phenomenon might be that booksellers in the act of searching for the pricing of a title might mistake the original edition for the reprint. I only mention this because somehow, I miraculously bought my first edition soft cover of Many Are Called in a Park Slope bookstore about two months ago for $35.00. The new edition retails for about the same price. How often do you think that will happen? Lucky me.

Book Available Here (Many Are Called 2004)

Book Available Here (Many Are Called 1966)

Two books by Gregory Conniff

Gregory Conniff has an agenda. We have forsaken beauty in our everyday lives and his new catalog of pictures is an attempt to bring that to our attention. Wild Edges: Photographic Ink Prints by Gregory Conniff is published by the Chazen Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin in 2006.

Conniff is hardly a household name. He is an artist that works quietly and may never get his proper fifteen minutes but that is hardly an issue. He is working and those that pay attention may very well be bettered for their attentiveness.

Conniff pursues beauty, as he describes, with an awareness that without beauty in our everyday lives we are evolving in ways that will potentially lead to a loss of fulfillment in our lives. He argues that we are hardwired with a need and that we are being denied that need.

In this day of issue oriented art, beauty is often something that is allowed to enter the work, but an artist that directly searches it out in its classic forms (without irony) is usually considered a kind of dinosaur. Conniff is a dinosaur, he probably wouldn’t take that as a disparaging term and he shouldn’t. These are not groundbreaking, original works featured in this book. They owe a lot to painting and art history and appropriately, he mentions George Innes of the Hudson River School of painters in his essay. But his versions are at times stunning. What I do know is that he is capable of exciting the viewer even though they may, at first glance, feel very familiar with what he is placing before us.

He is, in a sense, accomplishing his mission, but for the strength of his argument, his voice will unfortunately fail to rally the masses simply because we have ignored what he is showing us for so long. Now we need a slap of sterile white box Chelsea art to get our attention. He is much too proper a photographer to do that.

The catalog is very well done if not a bit too small to appreciate the works. I think many people will pass this by because it doesn’t draw enough attention to itself. Conniff had a show of this work at Candice Dwan Gallery in 2006. I missed the show but am intrigued because he has apparently adopted ink on paper digital technologies in his printmaking.

Anyone who may have seen this show, please weigh in, in the comments section.

His older book Common Ground, published in 1985 by Yale University Press, is subtitled An American Field Guide Volume 1. I am really drawn to this book but the subject matter is a little dry for my tastes. If the images weren’t so well made, I would be paying attention. In Common Ground he is photographing backyards that would be familiar to anyone in anywhere, middleclass USA.

“I am drawn to places that have no one overwhelming point of interest, but which seem to glow from generations of human presence.”

By subtitling the book An American Field Guide Volume 1, Conniff is referring to further study and observation of a type of architecture and organization of space in a way akin to bird watching. As we progress further into the book, nature once tamed, now reasserts its control making these spaces an elusive, rare species that needs searching out to see at all.

The book is well printed although it is essentially so “unsexy” in any superficial (packaging) way to entice you into picking it up or off the shelf. Photographers enticed by well done formal games will be more the audience for this.

Book Available Here (Common Ground)

Book Available Here (Wild Edges)

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Bauman Rare Books Photobook Catalog

Just a quick note to mention that there is another catalog of photobooks available through the Bauman Rare Books in New York City. If you are around 535 Madison Avenue (between 54th and 55th), you can stop in and ask for a copy. They are free. The staff seem friendly even though the atmosphere is a bit stuffy.

The catalog is nicely produced and is just shy of 200 pages. If you are into these books about books this is actually a good one. It includes a good amount of information on each title but the real education is in the pricing. It’s a curious mix of wishful thinking and out and out insanity. (I guess they have to pay for that Madison Avenue location somehow.) Many are signed or inscribed but that doesn’t come close to making up for the craziness.

Here are a few examples.

J.H.Lartigue: Boyhood Photos of J.H.Lartigue (unsigned) $1,500.00

Dave Heath: Dialog With Solitude (signed) $9,500.00

Philip Jones Griffiths: Vietnam Inc. (softcover unsigned) $1,800.00

Paul Fusco: RFK Funeral Train (1st trade edition signed) $1,100.00

Robert Frank: The Americans (Grove signed) $20,000

Robert Frank: Les Americains (Delpire signed) $22,000

David Douglas Duncan: This Is War (1st ed inscribed) $4,500.00

William Eggleston: Eggleston’s Guide (1st signed) $3,000.00

The only book that is below $1,000.00 is David & Peter Turnley’s Bejing Spring which is signed (by Peter) and listed at $900.00. That book can often by found at the Strand for under $20.00. And that’s more than twice the price of what it is worth to me.

While looking at these prices, I’ve just come to the fast realization that I’m filthy f%cking rich.

Excuse me if I don’t post anymore this week, I’m going to pick out my yacht.

Check my links below once your head clears.

Book Available Here (RFK Funeral Train)

Book Available Here (Vietnam Inc 1971 PB)

Book Available Here (Boyhood Photos of Lartigue)

Book Available Here (Duncan This is War 1951)

Book Available Here (Beijing Spring)

Three books on crimes and deviant behavior

Those of us who have been buying books in the days well before the internet have all heard stories of great book finds. Some of my own include a $5.00 copy of Eggleston’s Guide (1st ed) from a vender on St Marks Place in NYC back in the pre-Gulliani years when it wasn’t a felony to put a blanket on the sidewalk and sell your goods. On three separate occasions at the Strand Bookstore, I found a copy of Women Are Beautiful (paperback) for $6.00 each. I once found a $1.00 copy of Winogrand’s The Animals in the “pets” section of a bookstore in Maine.

A friend of mine has his own Eggleston story of coming across a copy of the Guide laid out on some garbage bags in front of his apartment building on the upper Westside of Manhattan. Some books seem to be willed into your possession.

Those types of discoveries happen less and less due to the information proliferated on the internet, although they do happen. I bought a $10.00 copy through Ebay’s Buy It Now option of Robert Frank’s Lines of My Hand (1972 Lustrum softcover) from a woman in Ohio. When my conscience got the best of me I sent her one of my prints along with the ten bucks.

My best finds though have not been books but photographs and ephemera. While living on 35th street and 9th avenue down the street from the New Yorker hotel building, I found the contents of an office being tossed into a 20 foot long garbage dumpster. Upon closer inspection of some of the boxes, I discovered they were full of case files from a detective agency. Being that it was dark and starting to rain, I grabbed what I could carry and ran back to my apartment. After seeing what I had, I am still kicking myself for not going back into the storm for more.

The reports were mostly surveillance of an outfit called the Good and Tasty Snackbar Corporation. Apparently they hired the services of this agency to report on which employees were stealing money from the cash registers. What was interesting to me was that the reports were from 1955 and 1956 and the two locations of stores under surveillance were Times Square and the snackbar on the Staten Island Ferry.

These reports read in very photographic ways. Each is a record of the events that took place within a 3 or 4 hour timeframe in which the detective sat in the snackbar and observed.

“Waitress ‘A’ took twenty-five cents for a cheeseburger but only rang fifteen cents into the register.”

“Waitress ‘G’ dropped the rag on the floor she was wiping down the counter with, and didn’t wash it before wiping down the juicer.”

There were a few other types of reports centered around marital infidelity cases. They describe a few individuals being shadowed around New York in the late 1950’s. They record the license numbers of taxi cabs and locations of dance halls and the addresses of the hotels where lonely wives ducked out to meet lovers. One was accompanied by a rapidly composed photo of two startled, bleary eyed people in bed.

But mostly these are about the writing and the images you conjure in your head. The writing is straight forward and utilitarian. It records only the facts, much in the way that photographs do.

This brings me to the three books that are featured in this post. All three are about photographs whose purpose was the strict recording of fact without any artistic intentions. (Correction: I assume that there were no artistic intentions) All, in a sense were "found" or "saved" as for most, they were discarded once they "lived" past their usefullness.

The first book is Scene of the Crime: Photographs From the LAPD Archive published by Abrams in 2004. There have been several of these types of crime scene photo books published in the past dozen years (Evidence, Shots in the Dark, Death Scenes) but this one I think is the best of them. (Note: Luc Sante’s book Evidence would win out but it is so poorly printed I have to pass it up)

Scene of the Crime includes over 130 photographs of murders, suicides, car accidents and evidence photos. It is a little design heavy but it works well and the choice of imagery is not just a gore-fest, but includes many images that are amazingly constructed. The paper stock and printing is a good match.

The imagery borders on the surreal at times. In one image, long looping lines of blood trace an odd signature on a flower patterned carpet with no body in sight. This photo in particular probably includes one of the most beautiful descriptions of a rocking chair I’ve ever seen. Obviously this was not the point of the photo but one notices the “accidental” proficiency of the photographer in many of these images.

Another, which is my favorite, is a photo of a broken hammer (reproduced in my composite photo). The photo is disturbing as our minds wonder at the use of this object in a crime. Perhaps it was murder, there is a letter M etched into the handle after all. This photo is so straight forward yet plays with our perceptions in the way that the broken pieces are askew enough as to not line up in the way our minds might want them to. If it were a sculpture, it might be displayed in the same museum gallery as Jasper John’s coffee cans or Duchamp’s bicycle wheel.

Not all of the photos are great or even good in this volume, but enough are good to call into question whether in situations like these does it matters being an experienced photographer or will the naive amateur get lucky enough to do the job? Obviously the professional will produce a better body of work in the long run but if it is an individual picture that counts, photography has a way of evening out the odds between the those two types of practitioner.

If in Scene of the Crime we are shown the crimes after they’ve been committed, in Least Wanted we see the culprit after he or she has been placed under arrest. This is a volume of police mug shots made over a hundred years. It was published in 2006 by Steidl and Stephen Kasher Gallery in NYC.

One of our earliest examples of a mug shot probably is of the men who conspired to assassinate Lincoln, most notably, the wonderful Alexander Gardner photo of Lewis Powell. That photograph exists as a great portrait in the same ways that many of the images in this book do.

(This image is not in Least Wanted)

What I like the most about this book is that it celebrates the photographs as object. Many mug shot cards are not just a photo but also records of information comprising finger prints and written descriptions of the person’s criminal history. This book reproduces many different types of these seductive objects. This is a rouges gallery of hundreds of hastily made portraits that at times elicit strong responses.

One section of the book describes the application of the Bertillion Indentification System which was supposed to “identify” the criminal type by way of physiological characteristics that could be measured and cataloged. Wanted posters often included these Bertillion Measurements in their descriptions.

These mug shots point out and make record of all of the physical and emotional characteristics that make each of us an individual. In essence, what makes us “identifiable.” But instead of “criminal types”, we actually wind up with a complete cross section of America over a century of time.

The last title is Harms Way: Lust & Madness, Murder & Mayhem published by Twin Palms in 1994. This book was edited by Joel Peter Witkin and his fascination with the human body, abnormalities, deformities, psychology and medical procedures is at the forefront. This book reads as more of a self portrait of Witkin than anything else.

If Least Wanted implies a cross section of the American face, then Harms Way shows us a 180 degree view from the norm. Mostly pulled from the Stanley Burns achive and the Kinsey Institute, the photographs here represent the extremes as one might expect from Witkin. Beyond the photographs of murder, which are actually surprisingly tame compared to the other chapters, this book tests your belief to the validity of many of the images of deformities. The section on lust is mostly comprised of the physical aspects of sexuality. Bondage, submission, bodily modification, cross dressing are all represented here.

The book is very poorly printed which is unusual for a Twin Palms production. I think in an attempt to recreate the tonalities of the actual objects something has gone terribly wrong. The images are contrasty, severly blocked up in the lower tonalities and at times are barely readable. Perhaps with subject matter this disturbing, that may not be such a bad thing.

In keeping with the thought of found objects, the above photos were found by me in a dumpster on 26th street and 7th avenue in Manhattan NYC in 1994. They were a set of cards, of which I found 34 different ones, documenting prosthetic limbs.

Book Available Here (Harms Way)

Book Available Here (Least Wanted)

Book Available Here (Scene of the Crime)

Saturday, May 19, 2007

5 Catalogs from Stephen Daiter Gallery

For the past few years, the Stephen Daiter Gallery in Chicago has been publishing handsome little catalogs from several artists off their roster. What is nice is that they range from common household names to the more obscure. You will find catalogs on: Andre Kertesz, Leon Levinstein, Art Shay, Joseph Sterling, Wynn Bullock, Peter Hujar, Aaron Siskind and others. The catalogs are usually 30 to 50 pages in length and the reproductions are well done. They have a nice substantial feel due to the cardstock wrap around cover that acts as a stiff dustjacket. They are priced around $15.00 to $25.00.

Their most recent title is Art Shay: Chicago Accent. Shay was a writer for Life and Time magazines and would write text and captions for photographers like Alfred Eisenstaedt, Wallace Kirkland and Francis Miller. Around 1948, he moved to Chicago and started taking photographs full time. He often collaborated on projects with the writer Nelson Algren who was best known for his book The Man With the Golden Arm.

Remarkably, there really hasn’t been a great book published that celebrates Shay’s contribution to photography. A book called Album For An Age was published in 2000, but it really suffers from poor reproductions and has a feel of cheapness to the whole production. I don’t own that title and haven’t spent a lot of time with it, but I do remember that it gave the work an understated and completely ignorable feel. When seeing this catalog, it was if I had never seen his work before.

The catalog features a wide range of subjects from celebrities to street scenes of everyday life. Of course, it is the everyday life that wins over for me. He was drawn to the rough and tumble margins of Chicago’s underworld. Backroom card games, drug deals, prison lock ups, and court hearings were common subjects for Shay. The work is journalistic but with a poetic edge. They could exist as journalistic documents or as art.

In one image, a woman who has fallen to the pavement adopts almost the same exact pose from the woman in Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting Christina’s World. (Curious note: Wyeth painted that image in 1948 and Shay made this photograph in 1949.) In another, taken through a car window, we are witness to a range of street characters (one with out legs) occupying a complex frame that leaves no space described without an interesting element. The photographs are a nonjudgmental look from a man comfortable navigating within the margins of society.

This catalog is also available as a limited edition of 200 that come slipcased and with an 8X10 print for $300.00. There are four images to choose from.

Another catalog is on John Cohen called The Shape of Survival published in 2002. This booklet features Cohen’s work from Peru.

As an artist Cohen has worn many hats. Photographer, musician (New Lost City Ramblers), filmmaker and teacher. Originally traveling to Peru to document the weaving of indian Paracas fabric, he would return several times documenting the people and landscape in a manner that was more artistic than journalistic by mostly photographing nonevents. The photographs share a similiar patina to another artist’s that also made his way to South America, Robert Frank.

This catalog was published in partnership with Deborah Bell gallery in New York City.

In 2004, they published a catalog on Bob Natkin who was another Chicago based photographer who worked from the early 1940’s, off and on again until his death in 1996.

In the late 1940's, he made memorable photographs in Mexico consummately and without condescension. A series made on commission from the Chicago Housing Authority (1948-53) documents the interior and exterior life of Chicago’s South Side slums. One series, seemingly made in one take, guides us through the arrest and subsequent sentencing of a suspect in narcotics court. Natkin also did his share of commercial assignments that examine the popular culture of radio and early television of which there are fine examples included in this catalog.

Although Natkin’s work may not be of such a distinct voice so as to be heard above the crowd, there are many wonderful images here that deserve their moment. Natkin is the prime example of one of the artists that I wouldn’t have known had it not been for one of these catalogs.

On a different note, one catalog published in 2004 by Daiter Contemporary is on John Gossage’s epic project Berlin in the Time of the Wall. This catalog diverts from the usual trimsize that these catalogs tend to follow into something a bit more grand. At 10X13 it is the largest of them all. It is essentially a teaser for the larger book of the same name published by Loosestrife Editions in 2004. In fact, the inside flap subtitle for the book is Berlin in the Time of the Wall: An exhibition about a book and its photographs.

This work made from 1982 to 1993 is a look at both the physical landscape of the Berlin Wall and the psychology of the Berlin Wall. This catalog gives the essence of what his larger book touches upon. The wall is an obvious barrier but Gossage finds every conceivable way to describe it metaphorically that we may be led to believe that this soot grey world’s only reason for existence is to stop life from happening. And just when you think you’ve had enough, he teases you with small offerings of comfort like a fine china tea cup before serving up another round of industrial claustrophobia.

This catalog is made from pages as they appear in the larger book and although this is a lot cheaper in price, the real punch comes from the relentlessness of the actual book (464 photographs). There is a slightly different version of this same catalog published as Contact Sheet #129 from Lightwork in Syracuse, NY.

The last I will mention is one called From Fair to Fine: 20th Century Photography Books That Matter published in 2006.

This is the most substantial “catalog” to date this is actually a 240 page book. Like the two history of the photobook volumes from Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, except without all of the insightful information, this features over 200 books that were a part of an exhibition and for sale. The book includes several essays on books by photographers, curators and art historians.

As you have probably read, I have a problem with the commerce aspect of photography books and this is certainly a title aimed at selling or enticing sales of the books on exhibit. I love these types of books on books though. What is refreshing is that in the introductory essay, Stephen Daiter acknowledges the current market and how certain people who have had a long passion towards photobooks have been “priced out” of the market on certain titles. Paul D’Amato penned a good essay about the social documentary traditions. John Gossage writes about his revelation towards books due to Japanese publications, and AnneDorothee Bohme writes about the photographic narrative in artist books.

One other interesting aspect of this book is that it utilizes print-on-demand technology through LULU book publishers. I have to say, it is a really fine production. It, like many photobooks, will cost you $50.00.

Theses are available directly through Stephen Daiter gallery at:

Nicholas Nixon and Judith Joy Ross take us to school

Photographers choose the cameras they use based on a number of decisions. From the ratio of the frame and the descriptive power of different negative sizes to the ease of operation and amount of control one has in making the image. Great photographers take all of those possibilities into consideration leaving none unpremeditated.

Henri Cartier-Bresson chose the small 35mm camera as his tool. Its unobtrusive size and ease of operation allowed him the spontaneity to master the camera’s 1:1.5 frame ratio while on the move. Atget chose an 8X10 view camera one might assume because of its descriptive power from such a large negative.

Photographers like Weegee (Arthur Fellig) were able to wield 4X5 press cameras and operate them much like 35mm cameras especially when using a flash as a light source. The number of photographers that handhold such tools are few and far between and almost no one is in favor of attempting to handhold an 8X10. The artist Dag Alvang did for a series of multiple exposure photographs made in the streets. He’s the only one I can think of, and truthfully, I think I’ve only seen one picture from that work.

This brings me to Nicholas Nixon’s book School which was published in 1998 by Bulfinch Press in cooperation with the Center for Documentary Studies and Doubletake Books.

Nicholas Nixon has been known to predominantly, if not exclusively, use 8X10 large format cameras in the production of his work. His pictures offer a mix of formal portraiture combined with the spontaneity of a small camera craftsman. Although often he positions or directs his subjects, the pictures do not seem contrived but contain a grace and sense of the natural rhythms of human movement. This is something that does not come easily when employing such a tool as slow and unwieldy as an 8X10.

The photographs in this book were made in three different locations in the Boston area: a Cambridge elementary school, the Perkins School for the Blind and the Boston Latin School. Robert Coles, the Pulitzer Prize winning child psychiatrist contributes three essays on his experiences and observations while working with Nixon in each locale. Nixon’s wife Bebe conducted interviews with students and teachers and quotes from these appear throughout the book.

What is remarkable with the photographs is Nixon’s ability to seemingly use such a difficult tool in a fluid environment such as a school’s classroom and repeatedly make images that are formally precise and technically flawless. For those of us that have used such a tool, focusing and dealing with the limited depth of field is one main difficulty especially when moving in close to your subject. In these photographs, the focus falls where it should and is never arbitrary.

Nixon is by now very quick in operating this camera through years of experience and in these photographs, his prowess as a photographer is apparent. The camera seems to be moving freely around sans tripod. He is somehow able to juggle the camera, the subject and the lighting (he’s often using strobes) and orchestrate them all together into a single complete photograph.

Beyond the technical, he is able to disappear in the crowd of the class and freely record moments that are completely lacking a sense of self consciousness from the subject. Only on rare occasion do we find people in the frame paying more attention to the photographer at work than to the studies they are pursuing.

At an opening a couple years back, I asked Nicholas Nixon about a picture that he had made which I still find to be a minor miracle of photographic accomplishment. It is a picture of one of his children being held in his wife’s arms and a delicate, unbroken string of drool stretches from his child’s lip and attaches to the wife’s arm, inches from a perfectly described set of stitches.

If you get to see this image in an actual print, where the focus falls is so precisely perfect that it seems impossible to have been controlled to such a degree when you think of the possible movements of the subjects.

When I mentioned that photograph he responded simply that to make that photo, “I had to become a professional photographer.” He mentioned having to learn to use strobes to assist in achieving precise sharpness in certain situations. This work in School is from a photographer who knows his tools so well that they have become natural extensions of his person.

The book itself is straight forward in design, but unfortunately teeters towards the dull. The reproductions are better than one might expect from a book that is equal parts photography and text. This isn’t a great book, but Nixon’s contribution could serve as an education in itself for many photographers.

Another artist that has explored children and teenagers in school is Judith Joy Ross. This past year saw the publication of her book Portraits of the Hazelton Public Schools published by Yale University Press.

Like Nixon, Judith Joy Ross entered the public school system with her 8X10 view camera, some lighting equipment and was given the freedom to work as she saw fit. Unlike Nixon, Ross chose to have her subjects pose for her and her camera and the results are more straight-forward than the invisible approach of Nixon. The subjects are very aware of her presence and with that awareness they reveal perhaps more than they may be comfortable with. In many, the subjects smile directly into the camera which to me is interesting only to the degree that we become aware of people’s response to cameras and photography. In those few images, I don’t find much at risk for the viewer. Unless the thing that may wound us is our recognition of their innocence and idealism at that moment and how that may be affected in their future.

In the best of these portraits there is something behind the smile that reminds us of the workings of the inner self. Often there is a slight awkwardness of a piece of clothing, pair of eyeglasses or posture that also pushes the images into deeper waters.

For the first half of the book we are in elementary school classes and as we read along, we seem to see them grow into young adults passing from grade to grade. By the time we get into pictures that were made in high schools, the students are forming their identities and self image as they choose to show it to the world. The images in turn become more about the inner dialog we have with ourselves. Vulnerability is there but more importantly the future and awareness of unforeseen possibility is apparent in their expressions.

The book is really well designed and printed. The reproductions mimic lush tonalities of the gold toned printing-out-paper Ross utilizes in her printmaking process. Jock Reynolds lends an interesting and well written essay about the project and Ross’s life in photography.

Judith Joy Ross embarked on this three year project wanting the viewer to “reconnect with what it is to be a kid.” I think that both of these photographers accomplished that through two distinct voices that are very aware of their inner child.

Book Available Here